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Last night, the 26th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival kicked off with a screening of Yuval Delshad’s Baba Joon. Over the next 11 days, more than 130 films screening throughout the D.C. area as part of the fest. Below, capsule reviews of but a small portion of the films playing this year’s festival from Washington City Paper‘s film critics:
Blush Michael Vinik’s Blush tells of a relationship between a rebellious teenage girl and her more experienced female lover. Naama (Sivan Noam Shimon) is barely out of girlhood, and while her partner (Hadas Jade Sakori) isn’t much older, she scans as a more mature woman, with dyed hair and an ultra-hip sensibility. Yes, comparisons to 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color are inevitable, and while Blush doesn’t achieve the same depth of feeling, it succeeds as a different, far less insular story. Naama’s relationship could be explained away as teenage experimentation, but Vinik also frames it as an effort to fill the emotional void left by her older sister, an Army soldier who disappears days before the story begins. Still, the film never judges its heroine or lingers on dubious psycho-analysis. Instead, Blush is content to tell a rather simple story without embellishment. It’s a naturalistic, low-stakes affair, with not much pleasure to be gained from watching it, but certainly no pain either. —Noah Gittell
Blush screens Feb. 27 at 8:45 p.m. at E Street Cinema, March 2 at 8:45 p.m. at the Avalon Theater, and March 3 at 6:15 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema
Fire BirdsThe Israeli film Fire Birds suffers from an identity crisis. Directed Amir Wolf without much precision, it cannot decide whether it wants to be a moralistic procedural or a more gentle comedy of manners. The plot unearths wounds that American audiences will never feel in an acute way, but it does not know what to say about them.
The plot involves Amnon (Amnon Wolf), an ill-tempered Tel Aviv homicide detective who must solve the murderer of an unidentified old man. There are few clues, except for a numbered tattoo on his forearm. Since Israel keeps detailed records of tattooed Holocaust survivors, he figures the body should be easy to identify, except a forensics expert says that the ink is too recent for that. While Amnon tracks down the clues, Oded Teom plays Amikam, a con man who seduces elderly Israeli women for their reparation money. Amikam’s main target is Zisy (Miryam Zohar), an aging actress who is glad for the attention.
Wolf dovetails these stories, of course, and Fire Birds as its best when the characters grapple with the morality of impersonating a Holocaust victim. The trouble is that Wolf includes meandering sub-plots, such as Amnon’s troubled marriage and Zisy’s attempt to jumpstart her career. There is no urgency to the action, so any sense of reckoning falls flat. In fact, Fire Birds is so languid that few characters, even those being scammed, have an interest in the mystery. That ambivalence extends to the audience, and never recovers. —Alan Zilberman
Fire Birds screens Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. at E Street Cinema and Feb. 27 at 8:45 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
The Hebrew Superhero
In the opening scenes of this short documentary on Israel’s now-thriving comic book industry, an artist speculates that the reason Israel was late to the comic revolution is because their culture had no need for superheroes. After all, they were all The Chosen Ones. It’s the sharpest insight in a film that plays like an introductory course to its subject without ever finding an angle. Directors Shaul Betser and Asaf Galay interview a series of talking heads who have created some wildly original and varied work, as well as enthusiastically-rendered animation, but The Hebrew Superhero assumes a passion for its subject that most of its viewers won’t possess. When showcasing the artistry of the comics themselves and their deep bench of superheroes—from an Israeli Superman with a Star of David on his chest instead of an “S” to an everyday loser with a nose so big that he nearly topples over—it’s breezily entertaining. And while superfans of the genre will drink up the backstories of their favorite comic book heroes like manna from heaven, casual readers and newbies will wish Superhero had gone unchosen. —Noah Gittell
The Hebrew Superhero screens tonight at 7:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre, March 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema, and March 3 at 8:30 p.m. at E Street Cinema.
The Law Even wonks who wax nostalgic for retro French policymaking may not be swept up by The Law. The dramatization of former French Minister of Health Simone Veil portrays her fight for legalized abortion in 1975. The film has a few issues: First and foremost, it’s impossible to grasp each character who peppers the screen, because the French titles and names of even minor ones are topped by their English titles and names, with subtitled dialogue somewhere in the mix. These subtitles move way too fast—this is indeed a movie you read, not watch, unless you’re lucky enough to understand French—and director Christian Faure and his trio of scripters lean heavily on Aaron Sorkin’s trademark walking ‘n’ talking approach. So, basically, it’s a whole lot of bureaucratese, which results in almost zero palpable tension. (Except one scene in which a doctor plays the recorded heartbeat of an 8-week-old fetus. I’ll give it that.) Lastly, it was born a TV movie, and inarguably is TV-movie quality—Veil may be played by a movie star (Emmanuelle Devos), but her period garb and awful, ink-black wig don’t do her any favors, or even distinguish her all that much from the other female politicos. Veil, who is an Auschwitz survivor and thus qualifies the film for the fest, was also 48 when the law passed (Devos is 51, and isn’t fooling anyone otherwise), yet she’s shown with an infant at home. You can regard that as a quibble, or a final nay on taking up The Law. —Tricia Olszewski
The Law screens tonight at 8:15 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema, Feb. 29 at 8:45 p.m. at E Street Cinema, and March 5 at 4:45 p.m. at the DCJCC.
Natasha The first half of Natasha suggests that the film is about cultural immersion, the difficulty of being ripped from your home, the loneliness of middle-aged singlehood, and, in comparison, the connection and lust of youth. Really, though, Natasha’s story is about Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon). The 14-year-old Toronto transplant fresh from Moscow hates her gaudy mother, who married
a lifelong outcast, the shirt-sleeved and beer-bellied Canadian uncle of 16-year-old Mark (Alex Ozerov). Natasha is practically mute when the two families gather for the wedding celebration, and Mark—who speaks English and prefers to read and deal weed rather than get a job—is tasked by his Russian-born mother to help acclimate the girl to her new city. But his reluctance, Natasha’s churlishness, and the fact that they are now cousins doesn’t stop them from hooking up. Gordon is great at projecting a character who’s seriously detestable yet achingly sympathetic; Natasha’s backstory, if true, makes you want to hug her while wearing a hazmat suit. Mark, though, is pretty boring, and his dullness trumps both Natasha’s troubles and Natasha’s appeal. —Tricia Olszewski
Natasha screens Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. at West End Cinema, March 3 at 8:30 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema, and March 5 at 6:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
Raise the Roof Raise the Roof, a documentary about a non-Jewish, non-Polish couple who reconstructed a ceiling from an 18th century wooden Polish synagogue, may not make you go clear out Home Depot and resurrect a house of worship. But watching Rick and Laura Brown, along with dozens of student helpers, assiduously work on the project using only hand tools will likely give you the itch to run outdoors and trade your screens for some Lincoln Logs. Though their dedication to replicating the roof’s intricate construction and artwork is as awe-inspiring as the murals themselves—which they had to re-create from archival photos because all of the synagogues in Poland were destroyed during WWII—the processes and explanations eventually become yawn-inducing. Rick Brown, too, is a bit too aw-shucks earnest, particularly his offerings of “universal wisdom” such as “Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Sound familiar? Well, if you can forgive the cliches and the more ear-piercing segments of klezmer that make these 85 minutes drag, your spirits will be undoubtedly be raised along with said roof when you see the stunning finished product. —Tricia Olszewski
Raise the Roof screens Feb. 28 at 11:30 a.m. at the JCC of Greater Washington, March 1 at 8:30 p.m. at the DCJCC, and March 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Bethesda Row Cinema.